Finding Freedom: a return to Usonia

“Tiny House History” is not so much an actual academic topic as it is a supposed idea of how we got to the place of sustainable homesteading, as it were. While it may come with some argument or even disdain I propose that tiny house history did not begin in the late 1990′s with a man, his 100 sq.ft. house on wheels, and a discipline in beautiful, functional, little dwellings. I propose rather that tiny house history began in the “old world” with caves, huts, squats, and other primitive but very natural dwellings. I also propose that tiny house history is not just an exploration into the architectural aspects of a dwelling but also the philosophical, academic, spiritual, and relational aspects of a housing movement. Because of this definition I find myself more and more curious about the homes built in the last 2,000 years. And so it is because of this curiosity that I have come across the Usonian Houses developed by Frank Lloyd Wright beginning in 1936.

Pratt HouseUsonia was a word used by Wright to refer to his vision for the American landscape including urban planning and building architecture. Wright proposed the use of the adjective Usonian in place of American to describe the landscape as being distinct and free of preceding architectural conventions. The homes would be smallish, single-story dwellings without a garage or even storage options. The majority of the designs were L-shaped so as to compliment a garden terrace on unusually shaped lots. They incorporated passive solar heating and natural cooling by way of flat roofs and large, cantilevered overhangs, natural lighting with high windows near the ceiling line, and radiant-floor heating. Even at this point it is easy to see how the influences of Usonian houses work into tiny houses, small houses, and sustainable homes.

Usonian is the term used in reference to 60, middle-class, homes designed by FLW. The first home was the Jacobs House built in 1937 in Madison, Wisconsin.

As history has it Madison newspaperman Herbert Jacobs – a friend of FLW’s – challenged the architect to design and build a home for $5,000. (with current inflation that equates to $80084.70 in today’s currency.) Wright went about designing and L-shaped house with an open floorplan and just two bedroom. To make the build more economical Wright developed a 2-1/4″ thick plywood sandwich wall for the house. (think SIP in today’s building world).

Jacobs House

Jacobs House courtesy of Florida Southern College.

Declared a National Historic Landmark in 2003 the Herbert Jacobs house has undergone some renovation, modification, and ultimately restoration since the mid-1950′s.

Wright continue to explore his Usonian idea even after the Jacobs challenge. Wright saw this as an opportunity to redefine architecture and economy just as the nation was in the throws of the Great Depression. FLW knew his homes could control costs on a number of levels while still providing style and substance to American homeowners.

Besides being small, one-story structures on concrete slabs, Usonian homes also had kitchens incorporated into the living areas. They had open car ports rather than garages. In short, they eliminated ornamentation in favor of function. In the 1950′s as FLW got older he continued to explore the notion of affordable housing by expanding into Usonian Automatic homes which were – in short - Usonian style houses made of inexpensive concrete blocks. The three-inch-thick modular blocks could be assembled in a variety of ways and secured with steel rods and grout. Wright hoped that home buyers would save money by building their own Usonian Automatic houses. Unfortunately assemblage proved to be a bit more difficult than intended and most buyers ended up hiring pros to construct their homes.

Pope-Leighey House

Photo of the Pope-Leighey House in Falls Church, VA courtesy of Library of Congress.

While Usonian homes actually built was limited to just 47 and while the costs to build often exceeded Wrights own projections causing them to overshoot the middle-class, they had great influence on what we now know as ranch style homes (complete with open floor plans, flat roofs, and connections to nature through glass and natural materials) that have helped define the American suburb experience.

Even today a number of Wright’s Usonian houses are still lived in by the families of their original owners. A couple have recently come on to the real estate market commanding millions of dollars. While this price point may be a long shot from FLW’s initial intention of affordability they are a great testament to his design ability and commitment to homes for the masses.

The Pope-Leighey house in Woodlawn, Virginia as photographed by Rebecca Robertson.

The Pope-Leighey house in Woodlawn, Virginia as photographed by Rebecca Robertson.

By Andrew Odom for the [Tiny House Blog]

Bellatazza Coffee Truck

French Coffee Truck

Hi Everyone, I just wanted to touch bases with the Tiny House Blog readers. I have been publishing rather infrequently because of some changes in our lives. Our family has recently moved to Central Oregon from Northern California and this has been a big change and challenge for us. We are just starting to get settled and I hope to regain the daily post schedule in the next couple of weeks.

Currently I am waiting for full time internet access and that will not happen till the first of August. So in the meantime I am dependent on Coffee Shops and my Verizon hub on my iPhone. I am sitting right now at the Sister’s Oregon Coffee shop and working on this post and also trying to complete Issue 19 of the Tiny House Magazine. Away from the distractions of unpacking and getting settled.

French Coffee Truck 2

Last weekend early on Saturday morning I got up to see the Balloons Over Bend morning take off. While there I saw this unique coffee truck which was selling Bellatazza Coffee to the early risers. I talked to the owner and he said the truck was made in France. It is a CITROEN and he says he can still get new parts for it though it is no longer in production.

I thought it would make a great tiny house if converted into one. It worked perfect as a mobile coffee truck but I can imagine living in it and exploring the country. What do you think?

Balloons Over Bend

Does That House Come With Free Shipping

71Z0JZGAX1LThe landscape of America is to this day dotted with pre-fabricated houses, kit cabins, modular units, and other “instant” houses. It has long been the American ideal to build ones own house but the reality has become in the last century that not all are able to do so be it for reasons of honest ineptitude, lack of desire, lack of time, and basic lack of skill. During the 1920s though (immediately following The Immigration Act of 1924) and just prior to the Great Depression men who were on the bottom of the corporate ladder but had a small amount of money and a huge desire to build a home here in America enabled “instant” homes to skyrocket in both popularity and sales. One of the companies that profited from this early DIY-esque building boom was the Ray H. Bennett Lumber Company of North Tonawanda, New York.

I first heard of the Bennett Pre-Cut House in an episode of Boardwalk Empire on the HBO channel. As Agent Nelson Van Alden (played by Michael Shannon) is remaining off-grid from his former federal security employer he settles with his émigré wife in an early subdivision filled with small bungalows crafted by Ray H. Bennetts company and referred to as “Bennett Pre Cuts”. Almost immediately I became fascinated with the idea of homes in the style of Sears & Roebuck being built in a factory, packed on pallets, and shipped via rail car to a Northeastern destination to be assembled by sub-contractors and working class stiffs. A small amount of research taught me that like Sears and Aladdin, Bennett sold kit homes from currently popular plans. His carried names such as the Flanders, the Cloverdale, and the Cleo. Once ordered, each house was crated and shipped from Tonawanda to its new owner. Bennett Homes (many still in existence today) are concentrated in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, as well as into the upper Midwest.

The introductory page of 1920 catalogue states:

 

“Today, more than ever before, people are seriously considering how they shall live. They realize that the inspiration of home, next to religion, is the greatest in life … The dainty cottage, the inviting bungalow, the comfortable Colonial, the cosy story and a half, these are the leading homes to-day … Bennett Homes, Better-Built and Ready-Cut, satisfy every desire and every need of home-lovers, for the dwelling-place which shall possess charm, convenience, and endurance to the greatest extent consistent with the desired investment.”

The most expensive home in the catalogue is “The Colonial”, at $4243.05, though if you paid in cash there was a 5% discount.  According to the US Inflation Calculator, in today’s dollars that would be $51,887.49.  The least expensive home (considerably smaller) is the “Kenmore A”, at $804.91.  It should be noted, however, that these prices do not include delivery.  The prices also do not include bath fixtures or extra kitchen cabinets, though they were available to purchase. Not only were the homes were pre-cut, they were even “notched for easy assembly”.

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Below is a picture and plan of “The Colonial” courtesy of Keith at Instant House.

colonial100

 

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Bennett Pre-Cuts as well as other mail-order house were marketed by mail order catalog from 1906-1982. The selling company provided building plans and materials to construct the home. The materials were provided either as bulk lumber, or more commonly as precut framing boards. The latter were known simply as “kit” homes. What is so fascinating to Americans today (who seem to be consumed by one-stop shop hardware box stores) is that buyer received all the materials from one source: lumber, roofing, doors and windows, flooring, trim boards, hardware, nails, and enough paint and varnish to put 2 coats on everything. Electric, plumbing and heating fixtures were NOT provided as part of the house, but were available at extra cost. Most buyers ordered from the closest supplier, as the buyer paid the freight charges.

These well-designed, practical, homes were made of top quality materials. Lumber and hardware were purchased in bulk then the structural elements were cut to exact size at the mill and shipped to the customer. Manufacturers like Bennett claimed the pre-cut system would save the builder up to 30% compared to the cost of standard building methods. 

The sacrifice however seemed to come in artistic terms. These houses were usually not distinctive designs at all, but rather copies of the most popular styles of the day.  House designs and sizes were standardized and closely regulated to reduce waste in materials, but customers were encouraged to personalize their order by moving windows or doors, adding porches, fireplaces, sunrooms, window boxes, trellises, or built in cabinetry, and by selecting exterior finish and colors. Pre-cuts were sort of “choose your own adventure” but with a tool pouch. 

To view a Flickr album of many of Bennett’s designs and sketches visit this page.

 

By Andrew Odom for the [Tiny House Blog]